The Cubs of the Round Clubhouse

When I was researching a piece about the Cubs’ clubhouse culture last month and the similarities it shared with the Clemson football program (i.e. it’s OK to have fun), I stumbled upon an interesting detail about the Cubs’ new clubhouse.

I knew the Cubs had the celebration room, regarded by some as a superfluous addition to the clubhouse. There’s also an impressive new strength-and-conditioning component. The old clubhouse, something of an subterranean alley way, was converted into a batting cage. There are a number of other amenities, as well, as one might expect of a new facility like this. The new clubhouse’s footprint of 30,000 square feet is about a quarter of the size of the Wrigley Field playing surface.

But it’s one of the smaller departments of the new clubhouse that I find interesting – the actual locker room space within the clubhouse. From an Associated Press story:

The Cubs decided to go with a circular shape — 60 feet, 6 inches in diameter, matching the distance on a baseball field between the mound and home plate — rather than the more conventional rectangle to encourage more unity and equality. There are no preferred corner lockers. Everyone can see one another.

Almost every other major-league home clubhouse I have entered is rectangular in shape. Certain locker spaces, like those with no neighboring locker on one side, are reserved for the most senior and/or most talented players. It’s not unlike the corner offices in your work place, which you might be hesitant to enter unannounced. There’s a sort of hierarchy of locker space, with certain players benefiting from a location next to unused locker space, which they use to store their spill-over belongings. The middle relievers, the bench players: they typically have no such luxuries.

While I’m not an expert in clubhouse design — nor the social manners and customs within those spaces — and while I’m only permitted clubhouse access along with other media for specific periods before and after games, I suspect the traditional clubhouse shape and layout does not always foster optimum discussion and collaboration opportunities.

And, to continue a theme from last week here at FanGraphs, one the great inefficiencies in today’s game is communication. Every club has the access to the same information, or similar information, but clubs ask different questions of the information and share information differently. I presume that there are different levels of collaboration in every organization.

And one way to force more communication and collaboration is by facilitating more time in the clubhouse, and in removing barriers that might prevent interaction.

Cubs manager Joe Maddon seems very interested in organizational culture. He told the Chicago Tribune last spring that he wants his players to talk.

“The old guys would talk about ‘these young players are out of the locker room so quickly. They should sit around and have a couple beers, and I’ll sit in the corner and smoke a cigar. And we miss that.’ Any time you lose, that’s the reason you lost.”

“So now you have this newer method right now, not necessarily sitting around and having a beer but to have a group of guys willing to share thoughts and ideas like that because they like each other, and they like being here and being a part of this and they’re opening up. Part of my job is to encourage that discussion. ….Now you come in and tool around a food room with a juice bar and maybe a video game, and that’s replacing a bucket of longnecks. I think it’s great. I think it’s awesome. And they’re 26. They’re elevating their methods of approaching the day already. Can you imagine four years from now what that’s going to look like — with good health, of course.”

Cubs player Anthony Rizzo told the Chicago Tribune early last season Cubs players will be spending more time in the clubhouse. “I don’t know how happy Joe is going to be about that,” Rizzo said.

And not only does Maddon now have a juice bar to help his facilitate discussion and collaboration, he also has the perfect locker room layout where all players are equals, at least in equal distance from each other, and visible to each other.

This idea isn’t just interesting to the author of this blog entry or the Cubs, but Silicon Valley has long been interested in this idea of collaboration — including how to best design a work space. As I mentioned last week, Water Isaacson’s The Innovators, is a fantastic read for anyone interested in team building. What’s fascinating about most innovators is that they are almost always collaborators; great ideas and inventions rarely have one father or mother. It’s a team effort, ideas are bounced around and generated though conversation.

And a work-space environment and layout can help or hinder the process. Consider Isaacson writing about workplace design for The Entrepreneur:

“The most productive teams were those that brought together people with a wide array of specialties. Bell Labs was a classic example. In its long corridors in suburban New Jersey, there were theoretical physicists, experimentalists, material scientists, engineers, a few businessmen, and even some telephone-pole climbers with grease under their fingernails. ….

“One of Marissa Mayer’s first acts as CEO of Yahoo! was to discourage the practice of working from home, rightly pointing out that ‘people are more collaborative and innovative when they’re together.’ When Steve Jobs designed a new headquarters for Pixar, he obsessed over ways to structure the atrium, and even where to locate the bathrooms, so that serendipitous personal encounters would occur.”

And in baseball, there are also benefits to creating serendipitous encounters, such as teammates sharing insights from a game or coaches and quants sharing ideas and suggestions for research.

As Pirates analytics department head Dan Fox told me, if coaches see Fox in person they are more likely to share a thought or idea than they are to email him. The Pirates were the first team to embed a quantitative analyst in their road clubhouse, in part to create natural encounters and question-and-answer opportunities. That analyst, Mike Fitzgerald, is now leading the Diamondbacks’ analytics department.

So maybe the new clubhouse played a small role in the Cubs’ breaking their curse. Or perhaps I am too interested in the methods and practices of a recent champion. But there are many elements in creating a successful organization including facilities and design. The teams that best collaborate and communicate have an edge in the information era, and anything that enhances collaboration and communication is worth investigating, including turning a square clubhouse into a perfect circle.



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